On Friday we reviewed Grant Wacker’s new book, America’s Pastor, and asked, “Is Billy Graham an Evangelical?” Today we’re running an excerpt from that book, focusing on Graham’s role not just as an evangelical, but as the leader of evangelical Protestantism in the second half of the 20th century.
Perspective is crucial. Graham did not build the edifice of modern evangelicalism. The key structures had been put in place, brick by brick, for three centuries. And countless hands had contributed every step of the way. Yet Graham’s influence on the architecture of the structure proved so profound that many Americans effectively identified him with it. George Marsden once said that an evangelical could be defined as “anyone who likes Billy Graham.” The line was tongue in cheek, of course, but it bore an element of truth, especially if measured by public perceptions.
The story started at home, with the multiple ways Graham helped shape the movement’s internal culture. For one thing, he prompted evangelicals to shift their focus from the venial sins of cussing, smoking, drinking, dancing, and premarital sex to the mortal sins of greed, lust, racism, and, above all, faithlessness. Which is to say, he prompted evangelicals to shift their focus from moral misdemeanors to moral felonies. That did not mean that he started out that way. Nor did it mean that he ever winked at the misdemeanors, or got entirely beyond preaching about them himself. But it did mean that he helped evangelicals establish a sense of scale. In a closely related move, Graham also alerted evangelicals to the difference between core and peripheral doctrines. Not every doctrinal difference was worth going to the mat for. He brought many of them to appreciate, in other words, the philosopher William James’s dictum: “The art of wisdom is the art of knowing what to overlook.” Or at least, gaining a mature sense of which doctrines should— and should not— qualify as a test of fellowship.
Then, too, Graham helped evangelicals see that justice for everyone, regardless of social location, was not peripheral but central to evangelicals’ affirmations and obligations. He did not always lead the way as boldly as he might have done, even by his own lights, but he was rarely very far behind the movement’s shock troops, and far ahead of the great majority of his constituents. To be sure, Graham never retreated one inch from his conviction that enduring social change started with changed hearts. But if changed hands did not follow, hearts needed to go back into the shop for more work.
The preacher helped his co-workers both deploy and regulate their entrepreneurial impulses. He understood clearly what evangelists before him had understood more or less clearly: that communication tools were a wondrously adaptable medium. Media of every sort—radio, television, print, movies, Internet, landlines, Contemporary music, among others—could be put to use for the Lord’s work. Along those lines, Graham helped pry evangelicals loose from their venerable commitment to the King James Version of the Bible and try other ones, including, most notably, Kenneth Taylor’s vernacular translation The Living Bible. Evangelicals had always been good at knowing what to do next. They had not always been good at knowing what not to do next, however. Sometimes they frittered away their energies on the temporary and the spectacular. Graham helped them calculate the long-term cost/benefit ratios.